I stayed in the house for the entire day yesterday. I thought a lot about Kaden and how he knows that I’m back in town, how Lauren is spreading the news, and how Austin came to see me Wednesday at the shop. I feel like I shouldn’t be here. I may be better off back at home—just letting everyone know that I’m not dead. Marissa will say that she hates me but it will only take her twenty minutes to switch the topic to herself. Do I want that? To leave?
There’s the party tonight, the one Austin told me that he and Kaden would be at. The confusing part is that when seven o’clock comes around I find myself in the shower. I tell myself that I’m not getting ready for the party, that I just need a shower, but after I dry off I’m looking through my suitcase which is still unpacked. I grab a pair of pajamas but lift up my last pair of clean jeans. Shaking my head, I drop them and the towel, slipping on underwear and grabbing the pajamas. Then, abruptly, I snatch the jeans and yank them on, forcing myself not to think. If I think, I’ll take them off. I don’t want to think anymore, it’s all I’ve been doing and I’ve gotten nowhere.
I’ll admit it. I want to see him. I want to find out if he looks different, if he’s genuinely sorry at all, if Kaden Lane still cares about me in his weird way that makes me question the meaning of caring. If he’s grown out his hair like he wanted or has facial hair, or if he’s thinner or muscled-up even more. If he’s still himself. Not the bad side, but the side I loved.
I can’t help myself.
Pulling on a shirt—specifically my blue shirt which was my favorite last year—I head out of my room and slip on my shoes and leave at eight-thirty. My Aunt watches me walk out the door, but she doesn’t say anything. She’s likely relieved that I have somewhere to go after my day locked in my bedroom.
I try to stay in my reckless state of mind as I walk to Micheal’s house. Ignoring my racing heart, I remind myself of the purpose of this reunion when I turn onto his street. Yes, I am curious about him and how he’s been, but I have to set boundaries. Kaden and I are done. We are not together and we are not friends. And I’m going to tell him that, I’m going to say that whatever happened last year is in the past, but we can’t see each other anymore. It is better for the both of us if we act as strangers. It’s time for closure.
There aren’t as many cars, which makes me nervous. I’m not especially early, this is when we used to come last year. It must be a smaller party, only certain people know about it—I’m guessing.
I climb up the porch steps and peer through the warped glass pain in the door. The lights are on, most of them. I hear people inside, so I ring the doorbell. My phone is obviously still dead so no one was warned about my appearance, but I’ve never been good at warning people anyway. Footsteps near, my heart races, the door opens, Lauren smiles and pulls me in. “You came,” she quietly gushes. “He’s here, you know. I heard that Austin told you. I’m so happy that the gang is getting back together. They’re in the backyard. We have a fire going.”
I stop in the hall before anyone can see us through the back windows. “Is he—uh—how is he?”
Lauren smiles. “He’s talking, but we all know he’s just waiting to see if you show up. Oh, he’s going to be so excited. I can’t wait to see his reaction.”
“Me, obviously, Kaden, Austin, Preston, Kailee, oh, Brandon your coworker is here and so is his friend—I think her name is Jess. A few other people might show up too.”
My throat dries. “I thought this was a party?”
“It’s a small, friends-only party. Really, it’s kind of a reunion.”
“Then why is Brandon here?”
She shrugs. “Everyone likes him, plus he’s a total hottie. I mean, I don’t mind.”
I inwardly cringe and lean back towards the door. “I don’t know about this. Maybe this was a mistake.”
“No, no, no, don’t say that,” she attempts to soothe me. “Everyone is waiting for you. Kaden hasn’t been able to sit still, at least just say hi.”
I take a breath and collect myself before all of the pieces slip out of place. I let Lauren walk me all of the way, and when the back door opens, everyone’s eyes shift to me. “Guess who’s here,” she cheers.
It feels like I am being swept away by a wave, dragged underwater and caught in a riptide. My eyes immediately find his. He stands up from around the fire very quickly and gazes at me. He looks the same, but older, possibly more handsome. The sight of him makes my heart ache and suddenly I don’t know what to do with my hands. Austin is beside him, he’s smiling at me, thanking me with one look. “Hi,” I breathe out.
“Hi,” Kaden says, also breathless. His voice, it makes the aching worse. It takes me back.
He nods and walks over, Lauren leaving my side and taking his spot. Kaden stands in front of me but I turn away and return inside, knowing that he’s following me. Knowing he’s so close causes my mind to scatter. I don’t know what to say or do, but I’m scared to look at him, really look at him, because I fear that my feelings will return so suddenly that I’ll be knocked off of my feet.
“Emma,” he softly calls to me and I turn despite my fears. Sometimes that’s all it takes. His eyes glaze over me, taking me in as I do to him. “You’re breathtaking, you’ve always been. God, I’ve missed you.”
I don’t want to get emotional but at this point, it feels inevitable. ”Kaden,” I murmur, remembering the taste of his name on my tongue. “I know it’s been a long time, and I know we haven’t—talked about what happened between us, and I’m glad to see you, but I don’t want you to take me being here as something it’s not. I came to tell you that what we had needs to stay in the past.”
“You’ve always been painfully honest,” he mutters, leaning against the wall, likely knowing of the unbearable memories floating in my head. “Did... Did Lauren catch you up on everything that’s happened?”
My brows dive together. His mother died. I’m the biggest jerk to ever exist. “Oh, uh, yeah, she did. I’m really sorry, Kaden. I can’t imagine how it must have felt. I wish things were different so I could have been there for you.”
“Why can’t you, Emma? What we had... We had a real connection. I loved you. Why are you pushing yourself away from me?”
I watch him carefully, not falling into his trap. “You know why.”
He clenches his jaw. “You know I hate myself for what I did, but that doesn’t mean that I never loved you, that my feelings weren’t real. It was one mistake. I was out of my mind, so were you, everyone was.”
Crossing my arms, I look down to my feel, truly regretting this conversation. “I could have died, Kaden.”
“I know. A day doesn’t pass without me thinking about the ‘what if’s.’ All I want is to make it up to you, to fix things.”
“I think it’s best if we just stay away from each other,” I say bluntly. “Austin shouldn’t have come to the shop, Lauren shouldn’t have said anything about me being here—”
He looks at me straight, his dark eyes reaching out to me. I want to back up and run out the door, a straight sprint home and into my bed. “You’re just going to shut me out? Pretend like I’m not here? Like nothing last year ever happened? Emma,” he murmurs, drawing close, “I’ve changed. I’ve forgiven myself. I know it will take time, but I want you to forgive me as well.”
“We’re done. Everything between us ended that night. I can’t trust you. I can’t trust anyone anymore. You know what, I don’t even know why I come back here every year because everyone in this town just picks away at me. Everyone here is toxic.” He reaches out to touch my arm but I shift back. “I should go. I shouldn’t have even come. That was my mistake, I suppose.”
Kaden sighs. “No, don’t go. Everyone is so happy that you’re here—I’m happy that you’re here. It’s too soon to talk about these things, let’s just pretend that this conversation never happened and sit around the fire like we used to.”
I want to tell him how he’s dodging the problem or how he’s ignoring my wants—that being not getting the ‘gang’ back together—but I close my mouth and nod. I’ll probably regret this too, talking will be like ripping out fingernails, but I walk with him back outside because I don’t want to be myself at the moment. I’ll just be someone else, someone who has fun and friends, someone like my old self minus the romantic side. My romantic side makes me do stupid, stupid things.
Kaden sits down, and I sit beside Lauren on the opposite side. She nudges me, wanting to hear what happened, but I simply smile and look back to the fire. Brandon is here as she said, I see him now. He’s sitting beside this so-called Jess who I recognize immediately. It’s the redhead that visits him in the shop—who is not to be confused with the drunk beach-girl who whined for his attention at the bonfire. I’m remembering these girls, but I don’t want to, it’s not in my control really. But, when he finally comes up for air from their hushed conversation, he sees me. “Emma? What are you doing here? I didn’t think you’d actually come.”
Lauren says that everyone likes him, but I don’t understand how they could. Sure, he’s attractive and active and charming and charismatic, but he’s playing with me, I know it.
“Well, I did,” I mutter, not wanting to talk to him at all. When I look up across the fire, I find Kaden’s eyes on me, which is not much better. Here it is, the regret.
“So, Emma,” Austin calls upon me in front of everyone, “you’ve changed a lot, haven’t you? I remember when you were all bubbly and excited all the time,” he journeys back, his words said with kindness.
“I was probably drunk,” I say bluntly, “or on drugs.”
“Yeah, I’m glad we all got out of that. We’re all better off without it.”
I clench my jaw and Lauren speaks. “I feel so much better. We’re lucky that we stopped before it was too late. Besides, we don’t need that garbage to have a good time.” She’s talking about the drugs only, not alcohol. We’re teenagers, not saints. These kids can’t live through a weekend without the vomit-inducing swig of their parent’s spirits.
The fire grows hot on my face, so I lean back. Brandon falls quiet and Kaden hasn’t said a word. Lauren, Preston, and Austin keep the conversation alive and Kailee, one of Austin’s friends, stays stuck to her phone. Kaden continuously eyes me so I get up and mumble that I’m going to the bathroom to whoever can hear. When I walk down the hall, two people come through the front door that look somewhat familiar but not enough. They smile at me and head straight to the back door. I glance back at the two as the group welcomes them around the fire before slipping into the bathroom. I set the cover down and take a seat.
It is quite uncomfortable out there, to say the least. The sounds of the waves and the crackling fire and the pointless conversation all began to blend together and suddenly I felt myself tipping backward. But, in here, alone, I steady myself and let my mind settle. I should be in bed not avoiding eye contact with Kaden Lane. If I told my past self that this is what would happen this summer, I would have stayed under the water in my pool. No, that’s dark. I would have probably stayed home and handled a summer with my school friends.
I wash my face and comb through my hair with my fingers before leaving the bathroom. The hallway is empty before I reach the end, the Brandon appears out of nowhere and blocks my path. “At the shop you seemed uneasy about them, now you’re buddying-up around a fire?” He jumps right into it, catching me off-guard.
“Uh, why do you care? You’re busy with Jess.”
I make my move to pass him, but he steps in my way with an amused look. “Are you jealous, Emma?”
I let out a short laugh, but I am jealous. I don’t fully know why or want to know why, but I am. Seeing Brandon flirt with other girls confuses me. He told me those things that night, so why is he treating me like this? Unless he doesn’t actually feel the way he said he did.
“Jealous? Sure,” I sarcastically breathe out, wondering if I could leave without anyone noticing now, well, besides Kaden who seems to have nothing else to look at.
“Are you ever going to be honest?”
My eyes focus in on him. “Why should I be honest with you? We aren’t even friends. All you do is bask in everyone’s love and flirt with every girl—I wouldn’t say that we’re compatible.”
“That’s a little dramatic.”
I groan. “God, why are you like this? Why are you trying so hard to get me to like you?”
He doesn’t look away from me, he keeps his eyes on me. He’s trying to get through, but I’m standing my ground. “I told you how I feel. That’s why.”
“If you think this is going to get me to be your friend, then you must be taking something.”
“That’s fine, I don’t want you to be my friend.”
My hands roll into fists. “Oh, because whispering and charming every girl in sight is definitely going to do that for you. You know what, you should stick to that. I’m sure I’ll come around.”
I turn to the door but Brandon grabs my arm. His touch isn’t rough, I could pull away if I wanted to. Something about it makes me desperate for something I don’t know of. An escape? More of his touch? Less of it? All of it? I don’t want to look at him, so I fall against the wall, my back hitting gently. Something about him makes me feel as if I’m speaking with a grown adult, as if I’m a child and he’s trying to teach me a life lesson.
“I’m sorry if my talking to Jess hurt you. I didn’t mean for it to.”
“Then why? Why do it anyway?”
He shrugs. “I really didn’t think you cared. I wasn’t sure if you were actually interested.”
I pull away now. “I’m not.”
Brandon smiles or smirks or blends the two or creates something of his own that makes my chest tighten. “It’s a little late to deny it now.”
I harden my face. “I’m going home.”
“I can walk you,” he says more than offers.
“No, I’m sure Jess needs you to walk her home more than I do,” I head to the door and look back before slipping out. “Goodnight.”